Paul Schrader's résumé ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. At the sublime end is the filmmaker's 1976 screenplay for Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated “Taxi Driver.” Then there's his 2013 directing credit for “The Canyons,” a pulpy, Hollywood-set tale written by Brett Easton Ellis (“American Psycho”) and featuring a star turn by porn actor James Deen – and Lindsay Lohan in a supporting role. After being partly funded by Kickstarter, and then very publicly rejected from film festivals such as SXSW, “The Canyons” ended up in the ghetto of on-demand cinema.
According to Schrader, it was always intended to be shown on-demand – and only there. And maybe that's true. Despite getting terrible reviews, “The Canyons” ended up making money for its investors, if only thanks to rubberneckers curious about a once-great filmmaker's spectacular fall from grace.
That harsh judgment may have been premature.
Schrader, 71, sat down to chat while in Washington, D.C., recently to promote his latest film, “First Reformed,” which also is full of extremes (as well as, arguably, the best movie he has ever made). Set in upstate New York in a tiny, 250-year-old chapel that lends the film its title – once a stop on the Underground Railroad but now considered a “tourist church” – the film follows the Rev. Ernst Toller, a troubled Christian pastor played by Ethan Hawke.
The action of the story is precipitated by the suicide of a young man whom Toller had been counseling: an eco-activist cynical about the future of the planet and flirting with protests bordering on terrorism. Gradually, Toller takes up the mantle of the dead man's cause, at the same time he finds himself drawn into a platonic affair with the man's pregnant widow (Amanda Seyfried). Eventually, this path leads him toward a dark and potentially violent turning point, in which the prospect of committing one of two sins no matter which way he turns – the sin of inaction or the sin of wrongful action – torments him to his soul.
The film's central paradox, Schrader says, is the “tautology of the jihadist: that there is such a thing as a 'glorious' suicide.”
Contradiction is not just part and parcel of Schrader's career, but also of his life story, which began in a strictly religious Calvinist household in Michigan. He wasn't allowed to watch movies because of what his father believed was their pernicious moral influence; the first film he was permitted to see (as a teenager) was Disney's “The Absent Minded Professor.” The second, a few months later, was “Wild in the Country,” featuring a hip-shaking Elvis Presley and 1960s sexpot Tuesday Weld.
“Aha,” Schrader recalls thinking at the time. “Now I get it.”
Schrader's work includes more than 20 screenplays (“Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ”) and a dozen stints in the director's chair (“American Gigolo,” “Cat People”). His oeuvre is notable for an enduring fascination with the stuff of mainstream moviemaking: sex and violence. But over that same career, Schrader also has returned, again and again, to a quieter theme, one he first encountered in French director Robert Bresson's 1959 masterpiece “Pickpocket,” about a petty thief wrestling with notions of good and evil, decency and greed.
It's a trope embodied by what Schrader calls “the man in a room”: a character who is often left alone, with nothing but his thoughts.
That character – lonely, introspective, living in but also strangely detached from the material world – first appears in Schrader's work in the form of the tortured, violent loner Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” He appears again in films such as “American Gigolo,” “Light Sleeper” and “The Walker.” Hawke, as Toller, is yet another iteration of that same archetypal protagonist, articulating his doubts and fears in a longhand journal – and voice-over narration – while self-medicating a serious stomach ailment, and existential angst, with hard liquor.
According to Schrader, Toller is simply an expression of the filmmaker's lifelong interest in one of the universe's most fundamental questions: How can one hold out hope for mankind when there is so much to despair of? That ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time – hope and hopelessness – is, according to Schrader (who puts those words in Toller's mouth), the very definition of wisdom.
But “First Reformed” is a stark departure from Schrader's previous man-in-a-room films, in that it's the first time the filmmaker has tried to make what he calls an overtly “spiritual thriller” – stripping away Hollywood action for stillness and minimizing contrived dialogue in favor of revelatory silence. For “First Reformed,” he adopted a filmmaking style known, variously, as slow cinema, durational cinema and transcendental cinema, and practiced by filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu, Carl Dreyer – and Bresson. (It's no coincidence that Schrader, a former film critic and theorist, is reissuing his seminal 1972 book on those three artists, “Transcendental Style in Film.”)
Shot in the pinched, virtually square format of filmdom's earliest works, “First Reformed” is a minimalist throwback, displaying a maverick approach to moviemaking in an age of widescreen special effects. There's no soundtrack, for instance, until the third act, and even then, Brian Williams's score sounds less like music than like an unsettling alien soundscape, more appropriate to sci-fi than to psychological realism.
According to Schrader, this serves “to cut against the grain of cinema itself, which loves to move, and loves to dazzle.” But dropping the razzle-dazzle, he admits, entails risk: “You create dead time.” Of course, the flip side of “dead time” can be that we pay more, not less, attention to what's happening on screen. Schrader says his first acting notes to Hawke were, arguably, counterintuitive (but ultimately responsible for the actor's mesmerizing characterization): “'This is a lean-back performance,' I told him, 'and you are a lean-in kind of actor. Every time you feel the viewer interested in you, I want you to just lean back a little further. Recede.'”
Not everything in “First Reformed” is quite so, er, recessive. One unforgettable scene features Seyfreid lying on top of Hawke – both fully clothed – as their characters appear to levitate off the floor, ultimately floating over a montage of scenery featuring both the beauty and the degradation of the natural world.
Although Schrader, a former theology student, no longer subscribes to the concepts of sin, let alone a physical heaven and hell, he says he still “chooses to believe that there is an existence beyond this material world.” That levitation scene – inspired by the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who used it in films such as “The Mirror” and “The Sacrifice” – is a metaphor for the journey that “First Reformed” takes you on. Unlike most films, the destination isn't a physical place, or even an emotional one.
“I knew that by the end of the film, we had to jump into the parallel world – the world that runs alongside this one, that we can't see, the world of the spirit,” Schrader says. “I wanted to remind the viewer, 'You know there is another world out there than the one these people are living in, don't you? And that it's really quite close to the surface?' ”